White Oak Mountain Ranger: Tale Of Two Weapons

Monday, February 15, 2021

My quest to harvest a bull elk only took 68.8 years.

I used a borrowed rifle.

I should have completed the quest with a bow around 65.7 years but came so unglued that I not only missed that particular bull once, but twice. That was just two days after managing to knock the cable off of the bow on the first big bull ever drawn on.

The knocking the string off of the cam still to this very day violently vibrates one raw nerve. In a time where transparency is a little rare, I’ve decided to just step forward and spill my guts about the whole affair. 

My Montana hunting partner assures me that he has in fact shared this story, without my express permission, around every campfire in elk camp since that monumental day. He says that the kicker comes when he tells everyone about how I got on the radio and asked if anyone in camp had a bow press. That line, he assures me, generates some epic laughs around every campfire.

When the first bull to ever respond to my most questionable call repertoire sounded off we started the slow dance of cutting the distance in half. The closer the distance the more severe each conversation got. I’d cut him off after every bugle making him extremely vocal and seemingly more enraged.

After about a quarter of a mile of this I was completely out of spit when the tree he was raking looked like it was in a Cat 5 hurricane. The boulders and lay-downs pinned me and I found myself unable to move any farther. He was still invisible when I picked up a Louisville slugger sized lodgepole and started flailing a nearby tree like my very life depended on it. 

All of Idaho fell suddenly deadly quiet. That was about the time my nervous system failed to overload mode. The diaphragm call was stuck in the roof of my mouth as dry as an Arizona horny toad. Logic seemed to indicate that I had blown it badly until, magically, there was the biggest bull I had ever seen looking me dead in the eye. He was steaming, drooling for a fight. The 12 pound limb was still firmly gripped by my right hand. 

Now what? 

I dropped the limb. The release went on the cable like it had 1,000 times before. Dropping the limb made a crashing sound like a giant Sequoia had just fallen between us. The huge old bull grunted, snorted steam and angrily eased away. In my mind there was still a shot. I drew the arrow, put the sight pin on his vitals and suddenly realized that something just didn’t feel quite right. A frantic check indicated the arrow was dangling from the end of my arrow rest. 

The bull turned and grinned at me when I gasped. 

Slowly releasing the bow I spastically tried to grab the knock of the arrow and seat it back on the cable. That was about the time that the cable decided that I had done something that cables and cams on compound bows don’t like. I frantically watched the bull slowly chuckle through the boulders. It was his best chuckle witnessed through a view finder of junk that was just seconds ago a perfectly functional compound bow. 

Bull number 1 was just the beginning. 

The mud covered bull I managed to miss twice a couple of days later roared up at a full gallop, steam, spit and drool streaming from every orifice. He slammed to a halt behind an Idaho lodgepole at what I figured was about 40 yards. Turned out later that it was more like 27 yards. When the dust settled I was forced to let down and wait for just one more step. That wait was where the second ungluing event of an inaugural elk hunt really began to move at mach speed. 

The bull finally took the step, presenting the shot. That was the very instant the sight pins on the bow began to glow like extremely bright neon traffic lights. I never saw the arrow. The bull wheeled and vanished.

I gave him the “old come on back and fight like a man” bugle and by golly, he did just that. Same tree, same step, same everything. This time my sight pins were spinning like some kind of glowing, hypnotic pin wheel. I never saw that arrow either and that was the end of my sorry attempt at harvesting a bull with a bow at age 65.7 I have since been told by old hands at this sort of thing that two shots with a bow at the same public land elk is a milestone in itself. 

As far as a good excuse goes for missing, or messing up these opportunities, about the only thing I can come up with is bow hunting has just too many moving parts. At age 68.8, plan B was to try a rifle. 

Prior to this hunt deep in the Madison range of southwestern Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness the majority of my hunting lifetime experience has been exclusively “up close and personal.” Where I grew up hunting and still hunt in East Tennessee, all hunting has been at close range due the topography of hills and hollows that the Tennessee River flows thru.

Learning to stalk squirrels carrying a Remington 22 with a 1918 patten date stamped on the barrel was my personnel rite of passage in this part to the planet. Squirrels, rabbits, frogs, doves and wood ducks always seemed to be “in your face” encounters.

As the decades passed and deer and turkey became more prevalent, they too were normally encountered within 60 or so yards due to the terrain. A lifetime of hunts made these formative years a “look ‘em in the eye” kind of thing.

I was sucked into elk hunting by my son who had been taken in as a rookie by some die-hard bow hunters while he was living in Washington State. He convinced me that chasing elk was as close to turkey hunting with bow as I could get. My logic, at the time I decided this seemed like a worthy endeavor went something like this; “How on earth could anybody with a good bow miss an animal that was the size of a Volkswagen bus?” Then there was also this flawed logic: “You can maybe still get in some kind of reasonable shape at this age.”

I won’t attempt to brag about how far away my first bull elk was when I shot the borrowed 300 Win Mag. I humbly submit that there is probably no way anybody would actually buy it. For me, it was a ridiculously long shot. Just trust me here, it was a long, long, poke. Let’s just say it was somewhat better than 860 yards.

After we spotted the bull across an incredibly wide canyon I immediately called the shot near impossible. After much counsel from the gun owner, the same guy who told every elk hunter he knows about my knocking the cable off of the bow in Idaho, I settled down to a series of dry fire practice runs and scope adjustments.

This was not just any old scope. This beauty cost more than my first three pickup trucks. This technological marvel had data input capability, a range finder, wind speed calculator and moving red dots. From a prone position in the snow, I quietly fretted once again that maybe there were just too many moving parts.

To make all of this a little more believable, the first shot indicated that the wind speed feature on the scope was not quite up to the task by about a half a body length. With the help of a good spotter and a whole lot of just plain luck, the second shot found vitals, and the third shot put the bull belly up. 

I watched through the scope in utter amazement as the bull tumbled a hundred yards down an avalanche chute. Standing slowly in a hail of congratulations as a rage of emotions washed over me. The best description I can come up with is that at that vey moment there was an aura iridescent with disbelief. I saw it with one eye through a scope. I instinctively knew it had happened. Somehow this shot had been dramatically  different.  In some inexplicable way the whole event seemed almost dramatically unbelievable.

As we made the long trek to the sprawled 5x5, I struggled to put my finger on what was eating at me about what exactly had just transpired. The answer for my confusion didn’t come to me until a couple of weeks later as I was suspended in a deer stand in a tight hollow back home.

Somehow the whole event had been simply too distant. Impersonal is not the right word; but it was not by any stretch of the imagination “in your face” hunting. There was no rush of a covey rise, no watching whitetails nose to the wind, or the rustle of leaves under foot. No big eyed squirrel hugging the hickory in his best attempt to be invisible. There was no spit, drool or steam.

After almost 69 years I feel like I may have mastered the ability to stalk eye-to-eye with an animal that is more than worthy of all the skill I can muster after years of trial and error. To me the significance of the stalk probably comes from a long gone era where hunting was all about getting as close as you possibly could to whatever you wanted to eat.  Getting close enough to use the technology you happened to have in your hand at the time. Think flint tipped spears and woolly mammoths here.  

I missed that on this Montana adventure. I missed seeing elk drool, and spit, and steam, hearing limbs crack and feeling the hair on the back of my neck doing that strange dance. I guess that after 68.8 years and a lifetime of hunts that were “up close and personal” has warped me to some strange end.

Maybe this all makes me feel that we may have lost something in the art of the hunt with the addition of technology that enables long range shooting. I am not so sure that it is as bad a loss as so many other things that we have sacrificed with the addition of technology. Don’t get me wrong here, I do not regret a lucky shot or the fact that I could even consider such a shot at age 68.8. There are no regrets, but in some strange way this particular elk has managed to push me back to the bow.

If I can find sight pins that don’t glow like traffic lights I may even invest in some technology so that 27 yards doesn’t look like 40. Then all I have to do is figure out how to keep the cable on the bow, keep from coming apart at the seams and make sure someone in elk camp carries a bow press.

Like my friend in Bozeman, who loaned me his hi-tech rifle says, “ A man can’t have too many campfires in his life.”

* * * 

Email the White Oak Mountain Ranger at news@chattanoogan.com


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